The gift of Los Campesinos! has always been pairing bleak, biting lyrics with catchy, upbeat melodies. Strings swell and the glockenspiels twinkle with exuberance behind words both vitriolic and resigned. And nobody’s more aware of this jarring juxtaposition than the band members themselves.
“It’s strange,” says bassist Ellen Campesinos! (all the members have taken on the same exclamatory surname). “Sometimes you have a song that’s kind of melodic and quite relaxing. And then [lead singer] Gareth can come up with something quite dark, and it will suddenly go from upbeat to something completely different, which shows the power of lyrics”
In the case of the Welsh septet’s latest album Hello, Sadness, its fourth full-length record in four years, those lyrics are particularly potent. However, early on in the recording process the band had no idea just how dark they would be, as the words were the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place.
“You can do a song and have feelings about how it sounds,” says Ellen, “but you don’t have emotional associations with it, so you’re playing it, it’s like you’re making a cake. You put the icing on, but don’t know what the occasion will be. Will it be happy birthday? What will it be? You don’t know.”
The occasion turned out to be a bitter breakup, which always calls for baked goods and sing-along anthems as part of the recovery process. In regards to the songwriting process, Ellen explains, “When Gareth writes lyrics, he doesn’t like making himself write lyrics, he likes it come organically.”
Rousing opener “By Your Hand” proclaims this loud and clear: “By your hand is the only end I foresee,” he fiercely sings, referring to both the end of a relationship and a life. The bleak theme continues throughout in songs like “Life is a Long Time” (“It starts pretty rough and ends up even worse and what goes on in between I try and keep it out of my thoughts”) and “Every Defeat a Divorce” (“You can lead a horse to water, but it won’t drown itself.”). While these are full-bodied songs with swooping hooks, this isn’t the snarky twee-pop of yesteryear. It’s sincere and gut-punching songwriting that just happens to be soundtracked with eclectic, and yes, occasionally cutesy, instrumentation.
But despite the dark subject matter, the album features some of the band’s tautest, catchiest tunes to date. From the cheeky optimism of their oldest, most beloved songs like “You! Me! Dancing!” to the upbeat angst of “Hello Sadness,” pop has never been a dirty word to Los Campesinos!—there’s nothing wrong with dancing along to heartbreak.
“I think pop music’s changed quite a lot,” says Ellen. “When I think of America and pop music, I tend to think of Katy Perry and Rihanna and stuff like that, but then all their songs are quite dancey and are literally about sex, so we’ve got that in common with them. There are some sexy references in our music. I think we all embrace the term pop because it covers so many things that it’s almost like a really nice bracket to be put into.”
The band has seen a few line-up changes in its history, the most recent being the departure of violinist Harriet in August. Considering there have never been less than seven members, this seems expected, given size and scale of their music. Yet the comings and goings of musical friends always make for odd adjustments.
“I think with any band, we’ve been together for five years, so it’s kind of inevitable we’re going to have line up changes,” Ellen says, “but every time it’s strange. You feel like someone’s missing, like it takes a while for your brain to catch up. At the same time, every time someone leaves to do their studies or stuff like that, it feels like a whole new band cause whoever comes in is bringing something new to it. You don’t feel like you’re replacing anyone, just reforming almost. It’s exciting to rehearse and find ways to compensate for her not being there. It takes time to get used but it’s also exciting.”
And that element of excitement and spontaneity is present in every aspect of the band’s work, especially its live shows, due in no small part to the enthusiasm and youthfulness of an ever-growing audience. In a time when all-age scenes are on the decline, Los Campesinos! is deeply cognizant of the importance and impact of this yet unjaded demographic.
“American audiences, especially when we do the 14-plus shows, they’re really enthusiastic,” Ellen says. “I guess you remember when you were young and that time when literally certain bands are your life and soundtrack everything you do. When you’re younger you go through a lot of stages and a lot of stuff. It’s such an important part. We all appreciate and remember when we were young how much it meant to us, and in all honesty it does make the gigs a little bit more exciting. I guess when you get older you’re a bit more tired, more weighed down by life, so when you’re younger there’s more enthusiasm. We enjoy having that reaction and enjoy feeding off it as well.”
And nowhere is this reaction felt more strongly in the States, so much so the band practically considers it a second home. “We’ve toured America a lot, maybe more than the U.K.,” she says, “so it’s almost like touring America feels more normal than touring the U.K. which is really, really nice. We all really enjoy coming to America and its definitely like the enthusiasm is better and there’s a greater variety of crisps and a better variety of cake, so the cooking is definitely better. And it’s a little bit more fun instead of being in your country and being like, ‘Oh my cousin lives in this town,’ that’s just like your hometown.
“You meet people who’ve gone to a lot of your shows or have traveled quite far to be there which happens obviously more in America because the U.K. is not big enough. You go five hours and you’d go off the edge. In America people are like, ‘I drove for this many hours.’ And you’re like, ‘You drove that far to see us, really? Oh my God—we’re all a bunch of idiots, really.’ You don’t think, ‘Yes, I’m a little bit special and on a stage in front of people.’ … It’s really, really weird and amazing.”
Los Campesinos! have found creative ways to interact with those fans, particularly with Heat Rash, a physical zine filled with original artwork and writing by the band. It’s an old-school, DIY approach unique in a digital age when most bands just tweet or tumble their regards—two things Los Campesinos! does, as well.
According to Ellen, Heat Rash was “a collective idea with [trumpet player] Tim being a multi-talented illustrator, we didn’t want to waste him and the skills he had. It was a way of focusing in on everybody’s different abilities and talents and giving them space to do something a little bit creative and also something different for the fans to have as well. It’s a little bit self-indulgent for us, but also it wasn’t like tour, record, release, tour, record, release. It was a way of having a bit more fun as well.”
It’s also just one more way to stay grounded for the friends from Cardiff. Not only do they create each entire issue, they also handle all the more menial administrative tasks like labeling and stuffing envelopes. Talk about a glamorous rock and roll lifestyle. “[Drummer] Jason and [guitarist] Neil are the main people who package it up, they are well oiled machines. We take it all on ourselves.